One by one, my media idols fall…
After we published a story chronicling influencer Garance Dore’s international travel and irresponsible social media post, Alexandra Shulman - former editor of British Vogue and a woman I had previously admired for years - referenced it in a column she wrote for the Mail on Sunday.
Her premise seemed to be that rather than offering more informed commentary and allowing more diverse voices to be heard, social media has turned us all into “cannibals with ferocious appetites”. Recent stories focusing on the fall from grace of early social media success stories Garance Dore (“a familiar and much-liked figure on the fashion circuit”) and Leandra Medine Cohen of the “popular” website Man Repeller - from “small” new media platforms Ensemble and podcast The Cutting Room Floor - were indicative, according to Alexandra, of an ill-informed and destructive approach compared to old-school media.
In other words: delusion meets delusion; privilege supports privilege.
This was, I have to admit, a darkly hilarious career highlight (blame my sardonic humour): one of my former idols acknowledging my existence via the Daily Mail, criticising the “small online magazine” I had built and likening it, and those similar, to “a seething swarm of venomous wasps”.
But I soon became fascinated by how Alexandra’s criticisms of social and "new" media for not abiding by the traditional “play nice” rules of old media simultaneously proved how out of touch she still is.
I have a clear understanding and lived experience of this. I worked at a newspaper for almost 10 years, I’ve worked in and edited magazines (including one that had been around for 40 years; a heritage that barely anyone outside of the team cared about), I had a relatively successful blog in the heady days before Instagram, I spend way too much time on social media, I now run a digital-first platform.
I’m of the generation that has both been - and consumed - new and old media; I am not a total digital native, I am not totally part of the old-guard. I have respect for both (and I also criticise both). Alexandra, on the other hand, has proven herself to be of the old guard that continues to position traditional newspapers and magazines as the true arbiters of “authority and trust”, and who still champion the old-fashioned ‘play nice, don’t ask questions, don’t rock the boat, don’t disrupt the status quo’ mindset.
Should I expect more from her? This is someone who featured only 12 Black faces on the cover of British Vogue over her 25-year editorship; and who, following her departure in 2017, wrote a column headlined “what makes a great editor?” that dismissively described the new crop as being “less magazine journalists and more celebrities or fashion personalities with substantial social media followings”. The column was interpreted by many as a veiled dig at her successor Edward Enninful, who has gone on to be revered as a modern editor who showcases true inclusivity in his pages and covers - and staff (and whose magazine is commercially successful).
Alexandra later told the Guardian - in a story that is still jaw dropping in its delusion (a precursor to Leandra Medine Cohen’s recent train-wreck interview on The Cutting Room Floor podcast) - that her comments were “intended to be a comment on what the future of magazine journalism could be”, not about Edward specifically.
In the same interview she also bristled against criticism of a photo in her final issue that showed her surrounded by 54 staff that were all white; said that she was not a fan of ‘positive discrimination’; pulled the ‘Black models don’t sell magazines' card; and refused to accept critique of a lack of diversity of the magazine under her watch.
It was interesting to me that Alexandra’s column sympathised with another idol fallen from grace. If you’re reading this, you likely already know the complicated story of the downfall of Leandra’s blog-turned-website-turned-media-brand Man Repeller (read this if you need a reminder).
Like others who often found fashion elitist and lacking in humour, I was a fan of MR from its early days; I loved the anti-fashion celebration of personal style. The site was simply clothes obsessed, which was fine until it wasn’t - the landscape shifted and fashion was expected to be political and socially aware.
“Don’t get political” is a line I’ve heard various people advise teams and clients here in NZ, something that today seems hilariously outdated; getting political seemed to sit uneasily with MR and Leandra’s ethos too. The brand’s weak response during Black Lives Matter, the ‘racial reckoning’ of women’s media that resulted, and the subsequent closure of the site with hardly a recognition of the community that had been drawn to it was a mirror of all of that.
Then Leandra did that podcast, an interview painful to listen to with its complete lack of self-awareness. I sat there cringing, thinking to myself, ‘how did I ever look up to this person?!’
It was an eerily similar feeling when I finally unfollowed Hadley Freeman, one of my journalistic idols for years. She didn’t care about trends; she had opinions and they weren’t always positive; she loved pop culture; she was a feminist who was unafraid to channel her rage through her writing. That, I thought, was goals! This was someone who wrote for the Guardian and ghost wrote Victoria Beckham’s 2006 book of style, That Extra Half an Inch.
But in 2018, Hadley began to use her platform to espouse transphobic views that paraded as (white) feminist concern - with a deeply uncomfortable anti-trans column published on Trans Day of Visibility, and another in June this year about losing friends for being on the “wrong side of history” with her questionable views on gender. She shared tweets in support of known TERF and absolute nightmare J.K. Rowling. My mind was blown and my heart broken; my (former) favourite writer is a TERF.
Kill your idols, or watch them do it to themselves in slow motion.
So what does that all mean? Well, I need to find new media idols (don’t worry, I have). I know now that this list of my once upon a time heroes - all white, all of a certain class - also proves my own privilege and narrow-minded view of power and career success.
These people I admired for so long spent years building a legacy through their work, before outdated views and a lack of vision destroyed it; unable to adapt to the important cultural shifts impacting media and in particular, “women’s interest” media.
“New media characters should beware how they use their power,” Alexandra Shulman wrote in her column. “Otherwise, before they know it, they will be seen as the old guard and taken down by the newer kids on the block, who will be feeling just as angry and aggrieved about something or other.”
Well sure, if I travel the world during a global pandemic then use my platform to question public health initiatives through the lens of ‘freedom’, go on a podcast and showcase a complete lack of self-awareness following criticisms of my treatment of POC staff, or become a TERF, I hope that the newer kids on the block do take me down and call me out.
One of the biggest fears in fashion is being doomed to irrelevance; mine is becoming as out-of-touch as my former idols.